The Illinois Barn Owl Recovery Plan: Q and A with Dr. Angelo Capparella

Last month we learned about how fantastic owls are. Their diversity, anatomy and natural history are simply amazing. This post will finish off that topic with our first question and answer session with Dr. Angelo Capparella, who is an Associate Professor of Zoology and the Curator of Vertebrates at Illinois State University School of Biological Sciences.

Figure 1: Dr. Angelo Capparella

Figure 1: Dr. Angelo Capparella showing some of the research specimens located in the J.W. Powell-D. Birkenholz Vertebrate Collections. These specimens are used by scientists to deepen their understanding of organismal biology, species diversity and geographic ranges.

Dr. Capparella will be answering questions about one of the many projects on which he works, the Illinois Barn Owl Recovery Plan. So, get ready to learn about some of the amazing work being done to preserve our native, natural wonders.

What is the goal of your research? What question or problem do you hope to answer or solve?

Our goal is to facilitate the recolonization of Barn Owls to our part of central Illinois. Secondarily, this will provide a test of the accuracy of the habitat suitability and nest box structure/placement studies that are part of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Barn Owl Recovery Plan. Finally, we hope to demonstrate that cooperation between state wildlife agencies and non-governmental conservation organizations can leverage both parties in the aid of conservation.

Figure 2: Barn Owl

Figure 2: Barn Owl. Photo by Betsy Mooney

How did you become interested in this topic?

A few years ago, I read the 2010 Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Barn Owl Recovery Plan. The report summarized the latest findings on what constitutes potential occupancy habitat for recolonizing Barn Owls and what type of nest box structure/placement works well in providing this critical limiting factor. IDNR did not have sufficient funds to extend the recovery area north of southern Illinois, so I asked our local JWP Audubon Society for money to purchase materials and Dr. Given Harper at Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU) to participate.

Figure 3: Barn Owl

Figure 3: Barn Owl. Photo by Zahoor Salmi

What are your results so far?

First, an IWU undergraduate student did a GIS-based habitat analysis of our area to find the sites with the habitat parameters identified as key in the IDNR plan. Second, we contacted landowners with suitable habitat to see if they would host a Barn Owl nest box. Third, and most challenging, we found a volunteer, Mike Callahan, with the expertise to construct the Barn Owl nest box + pole assembly. Finally, we placed six nest boxes across three counties in our area (See Figure 4), with full deployment occurring in early 2014. To date we have not had any Barn Owls recolonize, but we are told that one must be patient.

Figure 4: Dr. Capparella and Crew

Figure 4: Dr. Capparella and crew set up a barn owl nest box. Boxes were then raised 12 ft after installation.

Where is your research heading in the future and what obstacles, if any, do you have to overcome?

We are now in waiting mode to see which, if any, sites become occupied. The first obstacle we identified is that it is actually difficult to know if a Barn Owl is using a nest box as they are exclusively nocturnal and do not eject either pellets or whitewash. A researcher advised us to place a remote viewing video camera with video feed mounted on an extensible pole, and this has been done. The second obstacle we learned upon using the camera was that other birds, such as European Starlings, will use the boxes too, although so far not at an alarming rate.

Is there any other information you would like people to know about your research?

We hope that if and when we have positive results, that we can advise others outside of the IDNR recovery plan area how to more efficiently choose sites and implement nest box structures so as to assist recolonization of the Barn Owl back to the entire state of Illinois.

Figure 5: Barn owl in tree hole

Figure 5: Barn owl in tree hole. Not all barn owls nest in barns. Remember, they have natural nest cavities, too. Photo by Jane Canseco

Wow, I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the first owl to colonize these boxes. This is incredible work, and it shows how people of different backgrounds and skills can come together to work on a project. Although there are no positive results yet, it’s always good to remember that when working with nature, it does not always happen on the time scale of our choosing.

Owls will come when they come, and we must remain optimistic. If you are wondering if you have any skills that can help better our environment or benefit wildlife, trust me, you do. You just have to go out and look for opportunities, and you’ll find your niche where you can make a difference. If you would like some resources or have any questions, leave a comment or contact me on the blog webpage.

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